Wednesday, 3 December 2008

"Nighthawking Down - Hooray for PAS"?

In an earlier post here, I drew attention to the general feeling among British "metal detectorists" that illegal metal detecting is still a major problem in the UK. "Not so" say the pro-collecting lobby. We are asked to believe that due to the shining light emanating from Bloomsbury and through the 37 Finds Liaison Officers of the PAS, these criminals with metal detectors have been won over, softened up and mended their ways. They go no more a-roving at night looking out for saleable and collectable things, they apparently go out at day and trot along to the PAS with them.

Bill Sykes has joined the ranks of the "responsible detectorists", become a heritage saver, a hero. That's what we are asked to believe now. First there was Kate Clark making this claim, now it is the official version.

Roger Bland has now joined the “leak the preliminary results of the Nighthawking Survey” bandwagon. In his thank you piece to his new partners, the metal detector using artefact hunters and portable antiquity collectors, he tells them:

A survey by Oxford Archaeology on Nighthawking (to be published in February 2009) has found that this problem appears to have declined on two counts compared with an earlier survey in 1995: (a) in 1995 188 scheduled monuments were reported as having been damaged, and in 2008 the number was 70 and (b) in 1995 74% of archaeological units reported that they had been attacked, whereas in 2008 the number is 28%. The report will attribute this, in part, to the educational work of PAS.
I am sure all those metal detectorists on the UKDN forum are comforted by this announcement of the decline in the numbers of these “black sheep that get the hobby a bad name” and all due to the PAS. They probably have a feeling of warm gratitude that yet another hurdle in the way of the British public wholeheartedly accepting the relentless exploitation of the archaeological heritage for collectables for entertainment and profit has been removed. No more nighthawks, and all due to their partnership with the PAS. Wonderful.

This claim however conceals a puzzle. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has taken a long time to make any headway with the "responsible detectorists" of England and Wales, the UKDFD recognises that there are still many of them who simply will not record finds with the PAS. So how has a voluntary recording scheme like the PAS been able to persuade the law breakers to change their ways so much more rapidly?

I find disturbing the leaking of what are only selected and preliminary results of a controversial joint project by only one of the partners for its own purposes. I have already discussed the use to which these leaked conclusions have been put by Kate Clark. Denison and Dobinson's survey was restricted to England and Wales (as is the PAS), while the Oxford Survey is nationwide. If nationwide numbers have dropped, not to put too fine a point on it, it cannot be due to the PAS, and I fail to see how, if they are doing the job properly, Oxford Archaeology could claim it was.

I suspect that when we see the full report, we will understand better what these figures show or do not show. I am convinced that we will discover that this is an artefact of the manner in which the data were gathered rather than being a reflection of anything that is actually happening in the fields of Britain. I am sure though that the conclusions are exactly what the government and pro-collecting archaeologists of that topsy-turvy land want to hear. So I do not expect we will see much proper criticism of the report from the interested parties.

It seems a rather dubious strategy of the PAS to argue that they are responsible for a decline in the numbers of illegal metal detector operators. After all every single findspot on the PAS database is hidden from profane eyes, because allegedly there are so many "nighthawks" who could use this information. If the number of these "nighthawks" is on the decline (after all seventy sites nationwide is the work of only one or two gangs of professional treasure seekers), then let’s have the PAS database opened up to the full view of those who pay for it.

Equally, the PAS reports that although in 2007 there were over 700 Treasure cases reported, their scrutiny of just one internet sales outlet (eBay UK) revealed as many as 183 cases of illegal sales of unreported Treasure, information on these cases was passed to the police (let us see what they do with it). There is more, after all to illegal metal detecting than Bill Sykes just going out at night with a metal detector and spade to the nearest scheduled site and looking for coins to sell to US dealers.
Photo: Newark metal detectorists Mark Longdon and Dean Wright after conviction for daylight illegal metal detecting on the scheduled Roman site of Margidunum in 2007 (Photo: Newark Advertiser)

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